BASIC Principles of Online Journalism: C is for Community & Conversation (pt2: Conversation)

Continuing the final part of this series (part 1: Community is here) I look at conversation. I look at why conversation is becoming a form of publishing itself, why journalists need to be a part of that conversation, and a range of ways they can join in.

Conversation is publishing

In the first dotcom boom it used to be said that ‘Content is King‘. It’s not. As Cory Doctorow points out:

“If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.”

Jay Rosen, talking about journalism in 2004, noted that it was moving ‘from a lecture to a conversation‘.

And a year later Jeff Jarvis argued “Conversation is the kingdom“:

“In this new age, you don’t want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You don’t want to extract value. You want to add value. You don’t want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in.”

Look closer, and you could argue that the distinctions between conversation and publishing in an online medium are being eroded. Everything that we say is recorded, linkable, distributable.

Conversation is publishing.

The one-to-many relationships built by print and broadcast media have been disrupted by the arrival of the internet. By mixing these with the one-to-one cultures of telephony it has created a new, emerging, culture of many-to-many relationships.

For a long time the most popular use of the internet has been email. For the net generation, that is being replaced by social networking and instant messaging. All demonstrate that people don’t want to passively consume content online – they want to use it, produce it, and exchange it.

When the Chinese earthquake (among others) happened, it was reported on social networking sites before news websites. The information moved very quickly from people talking about what was happening to them; to people talking about what was happening to their friends; to people talking about what was happening to their friends’ friends: conversation.

Meanwhile, communities formed to pass on and clarify information more efficiently than the news organisations (for example, translating accounts, mapping, and mashing up). An online journalist who ignores this is ignoring a fundamental element of their job.

Conversation and community are closely linked: any editorial plan involving one is flawed without consideration of the other. Conversation leads to community, but it’s difficult to have a conversation without a community to begin with. It’s a chicken and egg situation.

Blogs are a classic example of generating a community from a conversation. Individual posts can gather global traffic if they touch a nerve, as conversations spread well beyond their points of origin – and back again. But how do you maintain that community when the conversation ends? (Should you even try?)

Building a conversation out of a community is perhaps harder, and why news websites have not always been successful in their attempts to do so. It is like having a room full of people with shared interests but who are too shy to talk.

You need an ice breaker.

The Professional Conversationalist

An online journalist should be a mix of the ideal party guest and the ideal party host, taking part in – and stimulating – conversations in a number of ways:

  • Be involved in your communities, online and offline. Comment on blogs, post on forums, correct and update wikis, converse on Twitter, join and contribute to social network groups.
  • Open up your own work for others to contribute editorially: include an email address; allow comments. In particular, don’t structure your work as a dead end: present it as work in progress; ask questions and leave them unanswered; acknowledge gaps in your knowledge; invite contributions there and elsewhere.
  • Open your work up technically too if possible: make your content portable by providing an RSS feed; widgets users can place on their webpages; wikis for them to edit; or even raw data for mashups.
  • Not only that, but you must respond to those contributions: That means reading comments on your own work and responding to them, in the comments as well as in the occasional follow-up post. That means looking at who’s linking to your work and posting comments there, or linking to them in your own work with an acknowledgement.
  • You must show explicitly that you are part of the conversation, by linking to sources (who will in turn know that they are being quoted either through pingback or traffic)
  • And finally, most importantly: you must listen. That means reading blogs, forums and other media in their sector, and then starting from the beginning again: comment, respond, link, open up.

It’s a conversation loop:

[UPDATE: A similar cycle was identified by Jason mKey in 2011)

As a journalist, doing all of these things has 4 significant advantages:

  1. Your work will be informed by user contributions, and better for it
  2. You’ll be more likely to be ‘there’ when a story breaks – and to understand the context
  3. As you talk about your work, and involve users in it, you will be distributing it as well. If your motivation is commercial, replace ‘conversation’ with ‘distribution’. Nothing works better online.
  4. Nobody likes a tourist. You’ll be building the trust and social capital needed for other users to give you the information that you need – or to help you find it.

Without the help of your community, without an effort to engage in conversation, your work will be one-dimensional, as flat as the paper it used to be printed on. And the journalist who doesn’t contribute to their communities and its conversations will look increasingly like Doctorow’s sociopath. Not the kind of person people will want to talk to, or read.

Read the full BASIC Principles of Online Journalism series:

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22 thoughts on “BASIC Principles of Online Journalism: C is for Community & Conversation (pt2: Conversation)

  1. Steve Uhrich

    Paul your whole BASIC thing is right on. Seeing how here in the states mainstream publications are loathe to even link to outside web pages (e.g. New York Times), it can get frustrating waiting for online newspapers to utilize the web to a larger extent.

    It would appear, sadly, that some are even trying to battle community-driven reporting as if it was but a deluge of ill conceived commoner-speak – in the vein of Andrew Keen’s ‘Cult of the Amateur.’

    I hope that more reporters and sites take your advice and implement a more ‘Dewey-esque’ model to create a more pluralistic media.

  2. James Thornett

    Good post Paul, I agree with pretty much everything you have said.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts/suggestions on how a journalist who may be moving into online journalism for the first time should approach this area.

    It’s relatively easy to comment on a blog post, to publish an RSS feed, or offer an email address for comments, but capturing and teaching the whole essence of what being involved in the conversation is all about is less trivial.

    Encouraging valuable conversation and stimulating online community is not something that happens overnight and the crucial task, as I see it anyway, is not in defining the end destination of successful online journalism, but providing the best possible route map with directions on how to get there.

  3. Dave

    Great series, and very eye-opening.

    One request: Please please please implement a better printer-friendly version of the site. Part 1 of this post is printing now, and it’s 10 pages long. The print just finished. I threw out 6 of 10 pages. The first two or three have your right rail links and ads — nothing anyone would need printed out. Comments/pings, recent comments, aggregator links — most of it of no use to someone seeking to save this article for later study. The article itself prints just fine — plain text and link format. But the rest is simply not needed.

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  5. paulbradshaw

    @James – I think the one thing a journalist moving into this area can do is blog, comment, link to and read blogs. That’s all there is to it, and the rest flows from there.

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  11. Afia Menke

    As a beginner at backpack journalism, I found your site helpful and informative. I made it one of my favorites so that I could refer to it again and again as need be!
    Thanks, Afia

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